Berlin Documentary Forum moves docs into performance ring

Experimental in nature, the new Berlin Documentary Forum has emerged at a time when new technologies raise questions about old modes of consumption, thus re-contextualizing the very idea of documentary.
June 7, 2010

Eschewing the usual trappings of documentary film festivals, including pitching forums and networking events, the first edition of the new, bi-annual Berlin Documentary Forum utilized a fresh platform that moved away from buying, selling and promoting and, rather, dissected overlooked theoretical aspects of documentary and documentation. The forum, presented by the House of World Cultures, wrapped yesterday evening in Germany’s capital after examining documentary through six special thematic programs that incorporated installations, screenings, conversations and even performance art.

Curators, filmmakers and thinkers – including Eyan Sivan, Florian Schneider, Angela Melitopoulos and Eduardo Thomas – designed a multi-textured and interactive program that encouraged participants to dismantle the commercial and theatrical borders constructed around cinema and move documentary into the performance ring. Many discussions over the course of the five-day event looked to the potential for documentary to not only deliver objective perspectives of real-world truths, but to play with the idea that reality is altered once it has been filmed, and what is left out of a frame is just as important as what is inside. Discourse about representations of histories, collective memories, film archives and human archives, and the power dynamic between director and subject were hashed out on multiple screens with input bouncing between lecturers and audience members.

As part of the ‘Authorship, Authority, Authenticity: Recent Documentaries from Elsewhere’ program, California filmmaker Lee Anne Schmitt screened her film, California Company Town, which looks at semi-abandoned regions in the state that have become the sole property of corporate companies. In a discussion after the film, Schmitt talked about documentaries as unique experiences where layers of official, archival and personal histories merge.

Legendary documentarian Fredrick Wiseman conversed with the Forum audience after a screening of his little-known 1974 film, Primate, a disturbing observation of experimental practices on gorillas and chimpanzees. Beaming in via Skype from his home in Massachusetts, Wiseman offered candid responses to probing questions about his preferred methodology that, according to the director, does not involve preconceived themes or ideologies. ‘The film is the result of making the film,’ said Wiseman. In defense of particular labels such as ‘observational’ or ‘direct,’ Wiseman cracked a smile and remarked, with tongue perhaps planted in cheek, ‘Cinéma vérité is a pompous, pretentious French term.’

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